Recent studies have pointed to an interesting shift in the demographics of American cities and suburbs. Many educated, upwardly mobile, and aspiring young people are now living in municipalities that have vibrant downtowns, good public transportation, and access to knowledge-based jobs.
How can struggling cities and tired downtowns attract these highly desirable young people who are a driving force in economic, cultural, and social rejuvenation and sustainability? Part of the answer lies in reinventing these places and, in doing so, finding new uses for old buildings.
The ideas of preservation and adaptive-use are not new. In a 1973 article in The New York Times, architectural historian Ada Louise Huxtable writes: “What we need is continuity… historic preservation is not sentimentality but a psychological necessity. We must learn to cherish history and preserve worthy old buildings… we must learn how to preserve them, not as pathetic museum pieces, but by giving them new uses.”
Former industrial cities and towns like Kingston, New York; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Manchester, New Hampshire are reinventing themselves by offering civic and quality of life improvements, and in some cases economic incentives. And they’re rehabbing and retrofitting their old buildings and mills, creating places for young creative professionals to live, work and play.
Kingston was an industrial hub in the early 19th century, and again in the early 20th century, as new industries evolved and set up shop. But then there followed years of abandonment as established business closed. Several of these old industrial buildings have today been converted to work space for artists, graphic designers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers and other creative types.
When Eric Meyer opened his web-development company Curious Minds, he found the start-up space he was looking for in a former garment-making factory building (now called The Shirt Factory) in the middle of Kingston. Eric was attracted to the feel of the old, manufacturing space: “You have the big beams, the bricks, and the casement windows. It’s fantastic.” Eric, an avid rock-climber, also took advantage of the high ceilings and open space and built a rock-climbing wall behind his desk.
The availability of flexible space that allows tenants to really create and build is both difficult and expensive to find in larger cities like New York City. Mike Piazza is the developer of the Shirt Factory, as well as two other similar spaces– the Pajama Factory, its name tells its history; and the Kingston Media Factory, which was originally built as a paintbrush factory.
When Piazza set eyes on the Shirt Factory building, its windows and skylights were boarded up and a prison-like barbed wire fence surrounded the property. But Piazza saw its potential and purchased the building to begin restoration immediately. He left the historic detailing, recognizing that “it’s the space itself” that attracts people. If you’re an artist “you need light… you need air.” This building has it all.
While many new Kingston residents are working in former industrial spaces, they are eating, shopping and playing in the other historic areas of the city. With its iconic white porticos covering the sidewalks, Kingston’s Stockade district is visually distinct and is filled with restaurants, bars and shops. The scenic Rondout–West Strand Historic District, located on the shore of Rondout Creek, also invites people from Kingston and the surrounding communities to browse antique shops, view historic vessels moored in the creek, and more.
Kingston has capitalized on its historic assets – adaptively reusing historic properties and marketing historic districts as interesting, safe, and hip areas with a distinct feel that is unique to the area. This formula seems to be paying off as today Kingston is a buzz of activity with vibrant stores, music and arts venues, cultural and historic attractions, restaurants, and other establishments that are appreciated by both residents and visitors and are heavily patronized.